It is surprisingly easy to identify the key protagonists in the world of the modern SA wine industry. In the 1960s Günter Brözel at Nederburg showed we had the potential to produce fine wine. In the 1970s Simonsig’s Frans Malan and Backsberg’s Sydney Back were the forces behind the emergence of estate wines. In the 1980s Tim Hamilton Russell drove the focus on cool climate viticulture, opening up the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley and bringing chardonnay and pinot noir to the fore. In the 1990s Charles Back introduced a hitherto unheard-of concept — the idea that wine should be made to meet the taste expectations of consumers (rather than the preferences of the farmers) — just as the industry was emerging from the era of isolation.
Since then the pace has picked up: Eben Sadie made the Swartland our international calling card and opened up the industry to a generation of young producers who discovered that access to, rather than ownership of, blocks of old vines could give them control of their wine-making destiny.
The current bevy of rockstar, young gun wine makers owe their existence to this model and to the (largely unsung) role played by viticulturist Rosa Kruger in discovering and documenting the existence of the vineyard blocks upon which so many of them depend.
Much of Kruger’s work was funded by Johann Rupert, whose real appearance as a player-with-profile in the SA wine market was a relatively late feature in his career as a luxury goods grandee. The untimely death of his brother Anthonij brought him into a world which, until then, he had left largely to his siblings. Once there, however, he threw himself into the business with the same enthusiasm and intellect that has characterised his forays into banking, the world of luxury goods and venture capital, to name but a few components of the empire he has built over the past 35 years.
He began by revamping the L’Ormarins property, which had been his brother’s home in Franschhoek. Recognising the importance of terroir, he focused on a range of wines produced from fruit harvested from single sites.
Several of these wines were made entirely from vineyards identified initially by Kruger as part of her Old Vine project, the Cape of Good Hope range becoming the vehicle for this terroir-based selection. The most impressive examples among the current releases are the chenin blanc from the Van Lill & Visser blocks, the Laing semillon and the Altima sauvignon blanc.
However, the model itself is quite precarious and the longevity of old vineyards is necessarily finite. For heritage sites to have a future, you cannot simply extract the accrued value of the investments (in soil and the elapse of time) of those who have gone before: you also need to create legacy vineyards for the next generation.
In 2008 Kruger alerted Rupert to the prospective sale of a sizeable property in the Riebeeksrivier Valley, part of the increasingly fashionable Swartland.
There were a few old vineyard blocks on the farm, including one that was the source of a wine in Sadie’s Old Vine Collection. (Rupert has continued to allow Sadie to harvest the fruit on the same basis as he did when the land was owned by the previous proprietor.) For the rest, however, the farm was largely virgin land — providing its new owner with the perfect opportunity to plant from scratch and conduct a number of viticultural experiments.
The Riebeeksrivier Valley farm covers about 200ha, of which only 30ha are now under vine. It is one of very few properties with access to its own water supply — an asset which proved invaluable in the 2016 drought vintage, which decreased yields in the area by as much as 50%. Mostly the property will remain fynbos. There are no plans to expand the plantings significantly or even to site a cellar on the property: the crush facility at L’Ormarins is less than an hour’s drive away.
The new vineyards have been located on southern and western slopes, either on friable schist or on iron-rich clay soils. A number of different trellising strategies are being tested. While a small percentage of the vines have been trained on wires, mostly they are on single poles or stakes, a reversion to the bush-vines which characterised the SA landscape 50 years ago and which are still common today among the older blocks in the Swartland.
There are also a couple of hectares of ungrafted vineyard — in other words, land with vines planted on their own roots rather than grafted onto American rootstock (to protect the plant from phylloxera, the louse that destroyed almost all of the world’s wine grape vineyards at the end of the 19th century). The relative isolation of the site, combined with the limited viticultural activity on the property for most of the past century, suggests the phylloxera risk is quite low. It’s believed that, all other factors being equal, the fruit from ungrafted vines will be better than from vines planted on phylloxera-resistant rootstock. Rupert and his team have been willing to take the chance and put this to the test.
Unsurprisingly, the varietal selection has focused mainly on Rhône varieties, though chenin blanc, ubiquitous in the Swartland (as in most regions of the Cape) and present in one of the old vine blocks, will continue to play a role. Among the white varieties, there are now quite well established vineyards of roussanne and marsanne (the great white cultivars of the northern Rhône) as well as grenache blanc, picpoul and viognier. The reds include cinsault, carignan, shiraz/syrah, mourvèdre and grenache noir. Accordingly there are a number of wines and blends in the pipeline, though to suggest that there is a clear vision of how to optimise the current plantings would be something of a poetic liberty.
I have tasted the final bottled wines from the 2013 vintage, some finished and partly finished examples from 2014 and what could at best be described as "work in progress" from the more recent harvests.
This is pretty much as it should be: wine makers must work with the material they have, while at the same time trying to predict what might change once younger vineyards reach an acceptable level of maturity. So the current white wine (to be called Caroline) is from the 2013 vintage and is destined to be released shortly. It’s predominantly chenin (since these were the oldest vines on the estate) though a little viognier is evident, if you look for it. It does have fabulous, unshowy freshness, faint compote notes and lovely grapefruit pith flavours, especially on the finish.
I preferred it to the 2014, where the viognier has taken over. On the other hand, the provisional 2015 blend, where roussanne now plays a key role, has beautiful finesse. I’m expecting the same of the 2016, where marsanne makes a meaningful appearance.
At this stage the red wines from the western and southern slopes are being treated as two completely different creatures, with separate blends made up from each of the two sections of the farm. It’s not certain that there’s a compelling case for giving preference to one or the other. I liked the Western Slopes 2014 and 2015, but was less excited about the 2013. The Southern Slopes 2013 is looking a little better at present, with more volume and weight on the palate. The 2014 and 2015 both have texture, though the 2014 is still a little grippy while the 2015 shows slightly overripe whiffs.
There’s too much happening at Riebeeksrivier to form a definitive judgment of what the property will yield. When Rupert built the new cellar at L’Ormarins about 10 years ago he allowed himself to be seduced by showy technology — and was disarmingly generous in blaming himself for the expensive gadgetry in which he had invested. At Riebeeksrivier, however, the approach has been completely different. The real investments have been in the farming, in the many small blocks where different planting strategies will have to run their course before what’s best on a particular slope and in a particular soil becomes evident. This is a time-consuming exercise, and it could take another 10 years before the results present themselves in bottle.
What is certain, however, is that this isn’t a smoke-and-mirrors exercise, another newcomer descending on the Swartland to burnish a reputation from vineyards planted by long dead farmers, and to make money from underpaid growers. Instead, it’s a safe prediction that 50 years from now SA’s best wine makers will go head to head to secure fruit from what will then be the old vines of this Riebeeksrivier estate.